The stage was set for the next round in the global confrontation with Iran when the UN's nuclear-energy agency found in a report issued Thursday that Tehran has been partially cooperative, but has still not answered crucial questions about its nuclear program.
The glass-half-full conclusion was in a report by Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for the agency's Board of Governors. It's likely to confound an international community that is united on stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon but is divided over what steps to take.
That lack of a single vision – which some experts believe Tehran has been clever enough to orchestrate by being just cooperative enough – could stall a third set of international sanctions on Tehran, which Washington was hoping to see passed before the end of the year.
The IAEA report says Tehran has become more transparent about its nuclear program, but it also confirms a continuing expansion of a uranium-enrichment program.
"You still might be able to get a third watered-down resolution, but it's hard to see the [United Nations] Security Council moving forward on really tough sanctions," says Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
But already this week, brewing divisions in the international community were apparent as two veto-wielding members of the Security Council offered diverging scenarios for dealing with Tehran.
China said Thursday that it supports Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear-energy program and that it prefers to see Iran answer questions about its nuclear ambitions through negotiations with the IAEA. That statement followed the visit earlier this week to Tehran by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. During his visit, Mr. Yang called for stronger economic ties between the two countries – something sure to irritate Washington, which has been trying to persuade other countries to curtail ties to Tehran as a way to pressure it not to pursue nuclear weapons.
Also this week, however, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown sounded a much tougher note, calling on the international community to cease all investment in Iran's oil and gas industry if the nation does not prove its claim that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.
Mr. Brown said Britain's course of action would be determined by the results of two reports: Mr. ElBaradei's and another by the European Union's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, expected later this month.
With divisions in the Security Council apparently reemerging, one possible outcome experts foresee is a shift in how Western countries pressure Iran – away from Security Council measures and toward separate sanctions by the economies most involved in Iran. But even that approach raises question marks, since it is not clear how fully on board Germany is.
At the same time, Iran's internal political situation is having more of an impact on how Tehran pursues its nuclear program, some Iran analysts say. "The Iranian nuclear dossier isn't just entangled in the Security Council; it's all tied up in the domestic debate in Iran as well – and that's heating up," says Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert with Jane's Information Group in Washington.
Iran's elites are increasingly anxious about signs of Iran's souring relations with the rest of the world. And with parliamentary elections coming up in March, a tug of war is intensifying between the country's pragmatists and more ideological forces allied with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Vatanka says.
But others say it is a mistake to put too much stock in the ability of Iran's civilian elites to sway the country's policies. "We shouldn't overestimate the influence of the country's elites over the governing elites, nor that of the legislative over the executive," says Mr. Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Another factor playing a part in determining how the Iran debate proceeds is a perception both in the United States and abroad that the Bush administration is actively considering military strikes against Tehran's nuclear facilities.
Takeyh says he suspects ElBaradei will "play for time" with his report because the leader of the UN's nuclear watchdog has decided his role is to head off a US war on Iran. "At this point, he thinks he's the line between civilization and disorder," Takeyh says. "If ElBaradei were to say in this report that the lack of full cooperation makes further talks a waste of time, his view is he'd be setting things up for [Vice President Dick] Cheney and those of his outlook on this."
One conclusion of those of the "Cheney outlook" is that Iran is playing the international community while it clandestinely proceeds in its nuclear pursuits. "Time is usually on the side of the proliferator, and in the case of Iran, they have used the time productively," says John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN who is now at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Mr. Bolton, speaking earlier this week at an event for his new book, "Surrender Is Not an Option," said there was a time three or four years ago when tough economic sanctions might have worked. But now, he says, Tehran has made such progress in its nuclear program that only two options remain: regime change and targeted military strikes against key nuclear facilities.
By regime change, he says he means exploiting fragilities in Iran's domestic situation. Still, "I don't believe you can turn regime change on and off like a light switch," he says. "That is why the military option has to remain on the table."